In response to the international outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), K-12 schools across the country are canceling classes and moved learning online. Across the country, more than 500 schools with some 360,000 students have already-closed or are planning to suspend in-person classes, according to the New York Times. Teachers are sending virtual schedules, with worksheets, live video chat links and prerecorded links for videos. Districts are distributing laptops and internet hotspots to those in-need, and meal pick-up locations are being placed around towns and cities for students who rely on free or reduced-cost lunches. But how can school districts support students who depend on in-school counseling services or social workers to manage mental health, especially amid new stressors brought on by the coronavirus?
Many students are unable to afford private mental healthcare, and rely on in-school resources for support. Teenagers in particular are susceptible to mental illness - in 2016, a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that rates of clinical depression rose by 37% over the past decade, highlighting the need to match young adults with mental health professionals.The Center For Disease Control and Prevention reports that the leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15-19 is suicide, posing a higher risk than motor-vehicle accidents. Mental healthcare may seem less urgent than addressing immediate academic needs, but during a time with such uncertainty, financial stressors for families, and increased isolation caused by social-distancing measures, it is more critical than ever before.
Extra stress and anxiety brought on by the coronavirus crisis is likely to worsen the teenage mental-health crisis, and administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors can take proactive steps to address anxiety, depression, or other mental illness. Moving existing counseling and mental health resources online, and conducting wellness check-ins for students might be helpful. Students can also be offered strategies for coping, socializing, and finding stability amid the coronavirus pandemic.
How K-12 Schools Can Prioritize Mental Health Amid The COVID-19 Outbreak
Teachers can play a major role in promoting positive mental-health in the virtual classroom. Children benefit from structure and routines around studying and homework, as well as time to play and make art, according to EdSource. For teenagers or young adults, journaling can be helpful for mitigating stress, and for students all ages, limiting news exposure is essential, as per the publication. Katie Petersen, president of the Santa Clara County Association of School Psychologists, emphasized providing younger students with accurate and appropriate information about the outbreak. Explain what public health officials are doing to combat the coronavirus, and how students’ behavior can keep themselves and others healthy.
Classrooms can also be used as a space to promote social-emotional learning. Encourage students to talk about their feelings around the coronavirus, and brainstorm strategies everyone can use to care for themselves and others. In addition, the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in an uptick in racist incidents or bullying, specifically against Asian-American communities, and teachers can play a role in discussing how discriminatory comments negatively impact students' peers. Teachers can cultivate a positive, welcoming school environment even as students meet in a virtual setting.
Students and their families should be practicing social-distancing, but that doesn’t mean individuals should be cut off from their community. Administrators, teachers, or staff should consider creating virtual social-opportunities for students. Extra-curricular clubs, whether it’s a virtual debate-team meeting or an at-home workout group for sports teams, can continue to meet using video-conferencing software. Encourage all students to continue to connect and socialize with peers with technology. If a teacher suspects a student might be lonely or struggling, encourage them to seek out these virtual meetings.
Administrators, teachers, or guidance counselors should also reach out to parents about detecting early-warning signs for mental illness during the era of social distancing. If an adolescent or teenage student is withdrawn or despondent, or begin to complain of chronic headaches, it may be a sign of mental distress. For younger children, regressing or becoming clingy may be a sign a student is struggling to cope. Parents with health-insurance may be able to seek telemedicine mental health care for students. Telemedicine is increasing access to mental health resources, even as in-person visits decline. Connect students who may not have access to private healthcare to virtual counseling resources or social workers.
Move in-school counseling appointments online, especially for students who already set meetings with K12 guidance counselors, can also help maintain a sense of stability. Also, consider setting up a digital mental health tool for students. Since many K-12 schools may not have the capacity to take on new appointments, especially as already-understaffed guidance departments grapple with how best to connect remotely, creating an online therapy portal can help meet demand. For example, Weber State offered support for students during the coronavirus outbreak by creating a Therapy Assistance Online (TAO) portal. TAO has nine sections on mental health and wellness topics, as well as 12-18 modules. Administrators recommended students explore the modules in the “Calm Your Worry” section. If possible, creating a centralized source of mental health resources can be an effective strategy for bolstering K-12 care as well.
Communicating Mental Health Resources During the Coronavirus Outbreak
Implementing mental health resources requires communication among teachers, counselors, social workers, school nurses, and administrators. Remote-learning may pose a communication challenge for these workers, but leveraging technology can help institute mental wellness programming for students. A panic-button app can be used by teachers during a student mental-health emergency and to communicate laterally from afar. For example, if a teacher feels that a student is struggling, the app can be used to inform guidance counselors or a nurse about a high-risk student. These individuals can use that information to attempt to connect the student to support.
During a true emergency that requires immediate response from law enforcement or EMS teams, teachers can reach out to 9-1-1 through the app. Meanwhile, the teacher can also communicate with administrators or other educators at the school about the nature of the emergency. In a period where these teams are physically separated, app-based communication can help streamline response efforts.
A mass notification system can also play a role in mental wellness efforts. Many families might not even be aware that virtual counseling meetings or social opportunities are available for their children. Increasing awareness can be beneficial for all - parents are navigating these unprecedented times as well, and may be at a loss for how best to support their kids. Information and connectivity are key to remotely managing student mental health throughout the coronavirus outbreak, and by leveraging technology, the student mental health crisis does not need to go unaddressed as the crisis unfolds.
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